THE BIDEN administration is right to characterize China as engaged in “stiff competition” with the United States. But the stiffness of the challenge stems not simply from Beijing’s global ambitions, massive resources, ruthless tactics, and Communist mindset. The U.S.-China competition is also keen because the United States has unilaterally squandered much of its competitive edge and is not bringing its best game to the playing field. Quite the contrary. Its economic, technological, and military advantages are at risk; its politics are polarized and dysfunctional; and its social fabric is fraying. Though the United States seeks to confront these vulnerabilities, heightened awareness of them is driving a preoccupation with the challenge from China, and a tendency to overstate the nature and scope of that challenge. This has magnified American threat perceptions, fueling a tendency to blame Beijing for problems that are largely made in the USA.
THE NARRATIVE has taken hold that the U.S. economy was hollowed out by job losses to China. Beijing, we are told, has been eating the United States’ lunch for decades. No doubt Beijing has engaged in a wide range of mercenary and often unfair trade practices aimed at scoring points for China and boosting its competitive advantage. But the United States itself has created opportunities for China to do so both fairly and unfairly. Can the Chinese be blamed for the loss of American jobs when U.S. companies voluntarily relocated them in pursuit of the comparative advantage China offered in terms of labor and operating costs? It is also true that Beijing’s economic diplomacy—especially under its “Belt and Road Initiative”—is opportunistically scoring points against the United States, often at the expense of transparent business practices and good governance in the countries China targets. But the United States, for whatever reasons, is not offering those countries many viable or attractive alternatives in terms of comparable levels of infrastructure investment and financial aid. As China scholar Evan Feigenbaum has observed, “whining isn’t competing.”
A more recent and obvious example is the obloquy directed at Beijing over COVID-19. Yes, the virus originated in China, and Beijing probably did less than it could have to contain its spread internationally. But it remains unclear how much of this lapse was attributable to the inevitable spread of a new virus before the accumulation of data makes its existence apparent, or to the systemic reluctance of Communist apparatchiks to acknowledge and report bad news. The latter explanation does not negate the former. More importantly, the severity of the subsequent impact of the virus within the United States was primarily America’s own fault, particularly given that Washington had several weeks of advance warning that Chinese leaders themselves did not possess. In short, Beijing bears some responsibility for COVID-19 reaching the United States, but there is no credible evidence that Chinese leaders intended for that to happen, and it would be ludicrous to try and hold them accountable for how the response to the outbreak was bungled after the virus arrived in America.
Fears have also arisen about Beijing’s “influence operations” in the United States, which have been characterized as “covert, coercive, or corrupt” and as designed to subvert democratic institutions, free speech, and even U.S. sovereignty. But this grossly exaggerates both Beijing’s intentions and its potential for success. Most Chinese influence operations in the United States are aimed simply at promoting Chinese views and interests through public diplomacy, lobbying, and cultural and academic programs. The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Beijing’s influence efforts during the U.S. 2020 presidential election campaign were aimed at “shaping perceptions of U.S. policies and bolstering China’s global position” rather than actually changing the outcome of the election. Certainly, Beijing exploits the openness of the United States in pursuing its influence agenda, and is also engaged in covert operations in the United States toward various ends. But whether China’s overt influence activities succeed in winning hearts and minds depends on how susceptible Americans really are to Chinese propaganda. If they are, that is another homegrown vulnerability—already apparent in the widespread embrace in the United States of disinformation and conspiracy theories. But as China scholar Susan Shirk has observed, “the harm we could cause our society by our own overreactions” to Chinese influence operations—by launching another “Red Scare”—is far greater than the damage being perpetrated by those operations.
Finally, alarmist reports from various sources routinely highlight Chinese advances in the military, technology, space, and cyber realms that threaten U.S. national security. Most recently, these have featured Chinese developments in hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons deployment, and artificial intelligence. These all pose serious challenges to the United States that need to be confronted, but the dangers are exaggerated when China’s possession of military capabilities is equated with aggressive intentions, or when it is presumed that Beijing is determined to assert global supremacy in every sector. (Chinese leaders probably judge that sharing technology leadership with the United States and other countries is more achievable and sustainable.) More fundamentally, the U.S. fear of being outcompeted by China in these sectors is due in part to the recent erosion of longtime American advantages through inattention, misplaced priorities, and/or resource constraints.
NONE OF this is meant to disparage the magnitude of the challenge from China. On the contrary, the U.S.-China competition is severe, structural, and systemic. China is challenging the United States’ post-Cold War status as the sole superpower, the wealthiest and most influential country in the world, and the putative leader of the international order. It is offering its governing model of authoritarian socialism as a viable alternative to democracy. And it is mobilizing its state sector to maximize every Chinese competitive advantage over the United States in trade and technology. But none of these challenges is existential or insuperable. Beijing is not seeking to eliminate U.S. power, wealth, and influence or to eradicate democracy and capitalism. Rather, it seeks a multipolar world in which China is also a “leader,” its interests are secure, and its governing model is accepted as legitimate. Even this vision, however, represents an extraordinary challenge to a United States whose political and economic models are stumbling, whose international reputation has eroded, and whose interests are not wholly secure. These vulnerabilities lend themselves to magnifying the China challenge into a zero-sum or winner-take-all contest in which neither side would find coexistence with the other system tolerable.
The historical context of these trends is important. The fact is that the United States, even before its recent domestic travails, was having more than its share of trouble acknowledging and adjusting to shifts in the global balance of power since the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the global financial crisis. Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that the United States is in relative strategic decline, it clearly no longer is (if it ever was) a global hegemon that can set the terms of its engagement with the rest of the world at will. The United States no longer enjoys “primacy” either globally or in the Western Pacific, and this further amplifies the perceived threat from a more powerful and competitive China. The prevailing U.S. response to these new historical circumstances, however, seems to fluctuate between denial that U.S. primacy has been lost, and a tacit acceptance that it has—but with a determination to restore and sustain it, presumably into perpetuity. Perhaps the latter is possible, but only if America first gets its domestic house in order.
In the meantime, the United States seems to be resisting acknowledgement of its relatively diminished historical position in the world, and channeling its discomfort and domestic insecurities into a zero-sum contest with China—based on a faulty depiction of Beijing’s intentions and an apparent rejection of any symmetry in the U.S.-China relationship. This mindset is reflected in multiple aspects of the Biden administration’s approach to Beijing.
First and foremost is its overarching priority on competition, with only occasional acknowledgement of the potential for or utility of bilateral cooperation. This emphasis on stiff competition flows predictably from the intensity of the Chinese challenge and the increasingly apparent gaps in U.S. competitiveness. But the deemphasis on cooperation seems to indicate an aversion to interactions that Beijing might use to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities and score points against Washington. Perhaps more likely, Biden’s reluctance to publicly promote cooperation with China—except on a handful of transnational issues like climate change—probably reflects a desire to avoid appearing accommodative or weak in dealing with Beijing when the United States is so politically divided and the “China threat” narrative has been so strongly embraced by both sides. But this risks negative long-term consequences. Although substantial cooperation with Beijing will ultimately be imperative, Biden appears unwilling to accept the domestic political risks of pursuing it—or at least of doing so explicitly and trying to defend and explain it.
This helps explain the administration’s overall position on “engagement” with China. Only rarely is the word used to refer to constructive interaction with Beijing. Instead, it is generally avoided on the grounds that “engagement” was an earlier policy approach that failed because it was based on false premises—particularly the notion that it would yield political liberalization in China. Accordingly, Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, declared in May 2021, “the period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end.” Another White House official said in November 2021 that “the Biden administration is not trying to change China through bilateral engagement” because “we don’t think that’s realistic.”